Where Do You See Yourself In Nine Hundred Years?
A friend of mine tells the story of the fellow on a job interview who is asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Without missing a beat, he opens his day planner, flips through the pages, and looks up. “I’m free,” he says. “What did you have in mind?”
But seriously folks.
Today marks the 900th yahrtzeit of Rashi. What this means to the casual observer is that Rashi has been gone for nine centuries. But to the thoughtful Jew it means that Rashi has been with us for nine centuries.
I was told that several decades ago, on the occasion of the Rambam’s 750th yahrtzeit, several students approached Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, for his thoughts on the event. He looked at them with utter bewilderment. “You mean the Rambam is dead?” he asked.
We are aware of the famous aphorism of our Sages that the righteous, even in death, are considered alive, but it often takes a milestone to bring home the truth of that statement. Rashi is alive this very day. Rashi, if we had the advantage of an elementary Jewish education, has been with us from our youngest years, and, if we kept up with our studies, remains a staple in the diet of Torah learning. Rashi will grow old with us.
Rashi’s accomplishments are practically beyond human comprehension. His commentary on the Written Torah is the very first stop when studying Chumash and his commentary on the Oral Torah is also the very first stop when studying Talmud. Imagine that! Forgive a crude sports metaphor (lehavdil!), but that would be like Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky being the same person.
And Rashi does it so simply. A word here; a quote there. For this reason children are able to learn and understand Rashi almost as soon as they learn to read Hebrew. A great rabbi once likened Rashi to an adult who holds the hand of a child and helps him cross the street through traffic.
But Rashi’s simplicity is also deceptive, for it masks a deeper intention. Why, for example, does Rashi quote one midrash and leave out another? Why does Rashi define a word by referencing a similar word in a verse in Nevi’im, when he could have quoted a more primary verse from Chumash?
Several years back, a scholar wrote a book called, What’s Bothering Rashi? where he tackles these sorts of problems. The hidden genius of Rashi is that you didn’t recognize that these even were problems until the answers were pointed out to you.
And while Rashi is envied for his brevity, the sheer volume of his work is awe inspiring. Rabbi Berel Wein, shlit”a, tells the story of his days as a high school principal when he once punished a misbehaving freshman by having him write out all the Rashis of a certain parshah. Simply copying all that Rashi was enough to bring the boy back to the straight and narrow.
Speaking of Rabbi Wein, he published a small synopsis of Rashi’s life in the Summer issue of Jewish Action magazine. I located it online and printed it out this afternoon at work. But before I could pull it off the printer, a colleague approached me, holding the document. “This would either be yours or mine,” he said, judging from the context, “and I know I didn’t print it.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized he was Jewish.
“Oh yes, I’m Reform,” he said. “But I have a friend who’s trying to upgrade me.”
I laughed. “Keep the article,” I said. “It’s about one of the greatest Jewish scholars in history. He died nine hundred years ago, but his work is studied in every Jewish school to this day.”
So if you’re free, here’s what I have in mind: pull out a Chumash or a Gemara and learn a little bit—with Rashi.